Any moment now, Lindsey could put the car in Drive, touch the gas pedal, drive past the green-etched Welcome to Shelby Lake sign and return to her past. Another hundred feet and she would be back.
Visitors traveled to the northwestern Pennsylvania lake-front community to get away. She escaped to put her life back together.
Center Street unfurled like black satin ribbon under a canopy of evergreens and multicolored maples and oaks that would take her right down memory lane. Past the elementary school where Mom taught kindergarten. Past Aunt Claire's sewing shop. Past Mrs. Lawson's pink-sided house with the plastic yard goose she dressed each holiday. Past the church where Lindsey almost said "I do."
Mom, why did you have to fall down the stairs?
Lindsey gripped the steering wheel, pressing her forehead against the powder-blue fuzzy cover. Maybe banging her head against it would knock some sense into her brain. She'd made promises that never, ever, not in a thousand years would she return to Shelby Lake.
But promises didn't account for widowed mothers who might slip on a dirty sock on the stairs to the laundry room.
Next to her, on the seat of her friend's borrowed Taurus, her cell phone chimed. She read the display. PerfectGranddad checking in. He probably expected her to hedge at the city limits, weighing the pros and cons.
Like for the past half hour.
She answered the call. "I'm on my way, really."
"No doubt in my mind, sweetness. Your mama's been taken to X-ray. She's asking for that quiltyou know, the one with all those circlesoff the recliner near the davenport. Could you pick it up on your way?" Granddad's voice betrayed an edge of stressplaying family watchdog for the past five years whittled any visible panic from his voice. "Can you hurry?"
sure. I'll be there in about twenty minutes or so." She ended the conversation and clenched the phone.
Quilt with circles, Granddad had said. The wedding ring quilt on the recliner near the couch. Dad's recliner. Closing her eyes, she could picture him sitting therefeet crossed at the ankles, hands tucked behind his head. An ache pinched her chest. But she would do it. For Mom.
She imagined her mother, fragile, her eyes wide with pain, maybe even fear as she lay puddled at the bottom of the stairs, or trying to drag her broken body toward a phone. If Lindsey hadn't swept the Shelby Lake dust off her feet, she might have been there. Might have heard her cry out. Or rather, might have been the one carrying the laundry downstairs.
She glanced at the sign again and released a loud sigh. Okay, so the town had fewer than five thousand people. Entering city limits didn't guarantee she'd see him. Or his son. Or run smack into the humiliation of being left at the altar.
It felt that way. Come on, who calls off a wedding a week before the big day?
Still. No one really lived down being jilted for another woman. Especially when they married within a month of her broken engagement. She couldn't stand the looks of pity that would follow her like a stray pup.
Can you hurry?
She'd grab the quilt, pop into the hospital to check on Mom, make sure someone from the church signed up to serve meals and then head back to her small country inn in Maple Valley.
Where she belonged.
In, out, fast, simple, and with any luck she wouldn't bump into the man who had left her heart in pieces, scattered across Shelby Lake.
Clouds resembling curdled milk smudged the morning horizon. Raindrops pinged her windshield in a lazy-Sunday-afternoon manner. A sliver of sunlight sliced through the tree limbs, over the rooftops of the houses lined up like first graders, beckoning her, calling her to come closer.
If she didn't do it now, she'd end up putting her car in Reverse and making the two-hour return trip to Maple Valley without looking back. But she couldn't disappoint Mom. Not this time.
She shifted into Drive and checked for traffic. None, of course. She had just coasted over the county line into Shelby Lake when she heard the blip of a siren.
A cruiser pulled up behind her.
Seriously? She was barely moving, let alone speeding.
Putting the car into Park, Lindsey dragged her fingers through her hair and rested her elbow against the door.
Maybe the officer would be one of the older guys. One of Dad's buddies.
She used to have the entire force on her Christmas card list, but, life had taken a detour the morning her father had been shot during a routine traffic stop and died a couple of hours later. And a girl had a right to close the door on a chapter of her life and start over, right?
The door to the cruiser opened. Lindsey squinted in the rearview mirror to see if she recognized the officer. With his head turned, she saw only dark hair cut above his collar. He paused to talk into his radio.
She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. "Come on. Come on."
He approached the car. She leaned over to scrounge through napkins and ketchup packets in the glove compartment for the vehicle registration and insurance card. Of course her cara silver convertible that she would have preferred driving for this foray into her pastsat in the shop, getting the brakes replaced.
A girl should have at least a month's notice before she returned to her former lifelose those extra five pounds, get her hair cut, a decent manicure and definitely get her hard-earned sporty wheels detailed.
Still, Rita's ancient beater had saved her hide. And again, it wasn't as if she'd run into anyone she knew.
A rap on the driver's window sent her heart skidding. Lindsey cranked the window open with one hand while trying to free her driver's license out of its plastic holder with the other. A rain-scented breeze frisked her cheek.
"What's the matter, Officer?" Eyes glued on her wallet, she tried, oh, how she tried, to keep the annoyance from her voice. "I was barely moving."
"Ma'am, did you know your left taillight is out?"
Oh. She'd turned her lights on during the rainstorm. Busted. "The car's not mine. Belongs to a friend."
"I need to see your driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance, please."
For the first time, she heard, really heard, the voice. Deep, with threads of humor around the edges, and the finest sense of control. A man of patience, of honor.
She closed her eyes. Really, God?
He was so not on her side.
"Yes, just a minute." Stephen. Or maybe Officer Stephen Chase. She ground her teeth, focusing on the fake pine-tree air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror.
"Stephen." His name slid out as a strangled whisper. Then, because she had to, she hazarded a look. And yes, God certainly knew how to spear her in the heart, because if possible, Stephen had only become more handsome.
Apparently that's what marriage and fatherhood did to a man.
Clearly five years wasn't enough to get over those blueberry-colored eyes, that dark, wavy, run-her-hands-through-it hair, the devastating cleft in his chin. His smile belonged in an ad for men's cologne. And still managed to send her heart into a tailspin.
Now, he just roamed about in her dreams, in the hours between waking and sleeping when she had no defenses.
Lindsey squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them again. Just to make sure. Nope, he hadn't been a figment of her imagination.
Stephen's eyes had widened even as his mouth dropped open. Good. She shouldn't be the only one squirming here.
Unfortunately, he recovered more quickly. "Lindsey Porter. It's been what? At least five years?"
"Something like that." Five years, two months and three days, if someone bothered to count.
"This is not your vehicle." He stood with hands on his lean hips and feet shoulder-width apart.
"I believe I mentioned that." She refrained from adding
"Captain Obvious." No need for sarcasm. He was only doing his job.
Because, you know, apprehending hardened taillight-defying criminals would certainly solve the world's problems. Or find her father's killer.
"Mine's in the shop. Borrowed this from my assistant manager."
He nodded and then crossed his arms over his chest. The stretched navy fabric of his uniform emphasized the breadth of his shoulders. She averted her eyes.
ABBA came on the radio, belting out "Take a Chance on Me."
Lindsey flicked off the radio. So not going to happen.
"I should probably give your friend a ticket. It's dangerous to drive around without taillightsespecially in weather like this. You just missed a downpour that came through here. What if the cars behind you couldn't see you slowing down or turning?"
"What cars? And no, I didn't miss itdrove through it, thank you. Without an accident, even. Imagine that."
He stared at her, and she seemed to see the words linger outside of her body, as if she wasn't sure where they came from. In the wake of her sarcasm she wanted to slink into her seat, maybe climb under it.
His cheery demeanor vanished. "I'm serious."
She blew out a breath, staring at her whitened knuckles clenching the steering wheel. Schooled her voice. "Sorry. Look, I know. I'll be sure to let Rita know, okay? Write me a ticket or whatever, but please hurry. I have to go. It's an emergency."
Suddenly she needed her mother.
"If you were in such a hurry, why did you idle near the sign for the last thirty minutes?"
"You were watching me?" She fought to keep the squeak out of her voice. She didn't expect any spectators while she psyched herself up to cross the county line. Should have known better.
"Someone called in suspicious activity. I had to check it out." He frowned, but the hard set of his jaw relaxed....